Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — The Missouri secondary had what might have been its strongest game of the season in Missouri’s 20-10 defeat of Kentucky.
The Tigers held the Wildcats — whose quarterback Patrick Towles entered the game third in the conference with 2,077 passing yards — to just 158 yards through the air. It was Kentucky’s second-worst passing game of the year at the time and the fourth straight game Missouri held an Southeastern Conference opponent to fewer than 200 passing yards.
The Tigers’ secondary, though ranked fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency, will have to prove itself once again Saturday against Texas A&M.
Not only do the Aggies boast the No. 1 passing offense in the SEC, but Missouri will also have to deal with the absences of two key pass defenders.
Starting cornerback Aarion Penton is suspended indefinitely for a misdemeanor marijuana charge, while starting strong safety Braylon Webb is suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game for a targeting penalty against Kentucky.
“I have extreme faith in the guys coming in,” starting free safety Ian Simon said. “We’ve got playmakers across the board in the secondary. I know everybody out there may not see every single Saturday, but there’s a lot of guys that can cover in our secondary.”
Cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford added: “Any time you lose a defensive back, you’re always kind of, I wouldn’t say worried about things, but you’re always cognizant of what’s going on out there and what could go on out there. We take the approach that it’s the next man up, and they’ve got to step out and do their job, and that’s what we plan to do.”
Stepping in to replace Penton is sophomore John Gibson, who brings experience at corner. Gibson played in 12 games his redshirt freshman season and recorded an interception, three pass breakups, a fumble recovery and 14 tackles, three of which came in the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl win. Gibson has 17 tackles already this season and was a contender to vie for a starting spot coming into the year with the departures of starters E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder.
“Obviously, he’s a guy that can cover very well,” junior-college transfer Kenya Dennis said. “He actually taught me a few things when I came in. We’ve just kind of been working with each other, and he’s a great guy.”
Gibson might have been too good of a teacher, as Dennis has surpassed him to secure the starting cornerback spot and has emerged as a standout player in Missouri’s secondary.
In the win against Kentucky, Dennis set career highs with four pass breakups — the most for a Missouri player since 2011 — and 1.5 tackles for loss. Dennis, a transfer from Hinds Community College in Leland, Miss., started in his first game as a Tiger.
“Sometimes that’s a really big adjustment, especially for junior-college players,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “… He’s got a great attitude. He works hard. He’s got a lot of energy, so (I’m) real pleased with his progress. He’s a lot better player right now than he was certainly six, seven weeks ago.”
Ford said he saw a very physical player when Dennis played in junior college, and that has translated to Division I.
“I’m not sure what other people saw,” Ford said. “I liked what I saw, and I think so far, so good. He’s living up to the billing, so I’m happy with his progress.”
While Gibson’s starting job could be a more permanent one — Pinkel would not elaborate on how long Penton will be out — Webb will only be penalized a half. Junior Cortland Browning will start at strong safety, and Simon said he’s comfortable with Webb’s temporary fill-in.
“I have no worries with Cortland,” Simon said. “I feel it. When I’m back there with him, it’s like I’m back there with Bray.”
Regardless of personnel, the Tigers will have their hands full with the Texas A&M passing game. The Aggies are the only SEC team with more than 3,000 yards through the air this season — 3,296 to be exact. In comparison, Missouri is last with 1,532.
Texas A&M’s aerial assault has come via the arms of two quarterbacks, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen. Hill got off to a sizzling start with 511 yards against South Carolina in the season opener.
But Hill struggled later, leaving the door open to a quarterback competition. And when Hill was suspended after being arrested on public intoxication charges, Allen took over.
Allen, a true freshman, threw for four touchdowns in last week’s win against No. 3 Auburn and might have earned the starting spot, even with Hill returning from his suspension Saturday.
“I think both quarterbacks are unique but both very effective,” Ford said. “Obviously, Hill is probably No. 1 in the conference, as far as a statistic standpoint, but the young guy is just as good. He moves around well. He has a strong arm. He came in last week and just tore up a really experienced Auburn team. We’re going to go out and do what we do and see where it goes, and I think you’ve got to be ready for both.”
Texas A&M has had plenty of success at the quarterback position in recent years, with Hill and Allen replacing Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. On the receiving end, the Aggies are led by Speedy Noil, who has more than 1,000 all-purpose yards this year; 6-foot-5 Ricky Seals-Jones, who leads Texas A&M with 43 receptions; and 6-foot-4 Josh Reynolds and his team-best 621 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
“They have really good route-runners,” Simon said. “They’re good after the catch. They’re very good about breaking tackles and getting upfield. I’d equate them with some of the Kentucky wide receivers as far as being able to break tackles and just make big plays.”
In short, the Missouri secondary will have its hands full, especially with two starters missing.
“You have to make adjustments, and things happen,” Pinkel said. “Bottom line is, there’s no excuses.”